IC tomorrow proves government's Tech City claims are not entirely phony
The government gets a lot of stick for jumping on the bandwagon when it comes to Tech City, and there's no doubt that it has taken a fair bit of credit for the growth of a digital cluster that was already developing organically.But if the...
But if the government does have a legitimate claim to Tech City's development, it is through the work of the Technology Strategy Board (TSB), which is a non-departmental public body sponsored by the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS).
Last year I spoke to Nick Appleyard, Head of Digital at the TSB, who explained that the TSB's role was to provide modest investment in early-stage technologies that will have a broad social impact. It also offers support and mentoring for entrepreneurs and introductions to angel investors.
Much of the TSB's activity is around competitions, feasibility studies and 'launchpad' initiatives, which give start-ups an opportunity to try out their products and services in the real world, and gain feedback from experts and prospective investors.
The organisation runs different activities for start-ups at various stages of development, and one of these initiatives - IC tomorrow - offers very small companies (often less than 10 people) a testbed to experiment and ascertain the commercial feasibility of their ideas.
These innovations tend to be very rough and ready, but the TSB believes that engaging with companies at such an early stage can have long-term benefits for the economy.
“At the Technology Strategy Board we can open those doors that sometimes small companies are just not able to do,” said Matt Sansam, programme manager for IC tomorrow. “Our ideal solution is that we enable those prototypes so they go off and do great things commercially.”
Sansam pointed to a start-up called CookieSmart, which won IC tomorrow 's digital innovation contest in April 2012. The aim was to develop an application or service aimed at blind people that creates a ‘domestic control centre’ or a web based portal to help make TV more accessible.
When entrepreneur Louis-Joseph Auguste heard about the challenge, he was keen to see if he could come up with a solution, as he not only had a passion for film and television but his own grandfather was blind. Auguste had minimal previous experience in the software business, but he did have a solid idea.
With the help of two advisors he came up with Cybel Remote - a mobile application for the iOS platform that connects to set top boxes and uses the integrated voice over feature to deliver programme information. In simple terms, your iPhone or iPad reads out what’s on television when prompted by the user’s touch.
After winning the competition, Auguste was given an introduction to the Royal National Institute of Blind People (RNIB), which had already conducted a great deal of user interface research. By visiting the RNIB's offices and getting feedback, Auguste was able to develop the product and eventually find a media partner for the proof of concept.
“Our biggest challenge was finding a set top box manufacturer who would provide us with protocols that would allow our software to communicate directly with the set top box,” said Auguste.
“After a few months of working with Virgin Media, who helped with the prototype and provided technical assistance, we are well on the way to having the Cybel Remote installed on domestic set top boxes.”
CookieSmart’s build process is progressing well and the team expects the application to be available in Apple’s app store by September 2013. With a digital satellite TV service also set to incorporate Cybel’s innovation into their boxes in 2013, the concept is rapidly becoming a reality.
The case study proves that getting access to the right people at the right time can make a world of difference for early-stage companies like CookieSmart. As well as providing a testbed for his idea, IC tomorrow gave Auguste the validation to pursue his idea from concept to paper prototype to wireframe and finally to a mobile application ready for trial.
The TSB is of course not the only organisation doing this - there are plenty of independently run incubators that are helping early stage start-ups on the same path, often with better funding options and more scope for collaboration down the line.
But if you wanted evidence that the government is making a tangible contribution to Tech City, this is it.